The impact of conservation ecology on marine life

By Shahnia Surendran

Marine ecosystems are vast, highly saline bodies of water and are the largest aquatic ecosystems, accounting for 97% of the planet’s water supply and 90% of habitable space on Earth (Nunez, 2019). They are characterised by the interactions between biotic factors and sterile abiotic factors, fundamental to the biological communities associated with the diverse physical environment, whether this be a peaty salt marsh or a vibrant coral reef. These immense bodies of water act as a hydrosphere to regulate the sun’s heat, circulating it around the planet in order to drive global weather patterns and to govern land surface temperature (LST) (Nunez, 2019). Marine ecosystems are a vital resource as they provide food security, feed for livestock, raw materials for medicine and natural defence against physical threats such as coastal erosion and inundation. As a result, marine conservation efforts aim to protect and preserve these environs by limiting and restoring anthropogenic damage, as well as conserving vulnerable marine species. 

The human impact on marine ecosystems ranges far and wide, spanning pollution, overfishing, the introduction of alien and invasive species, eutrophication and coral bleaching, among many others (Brander et al., 2010). This has had a profound impact on food webs and food chains, with a trickle-down effect leading to disastrous consequences for the biodiversity and survival of not only marine life, but for planet Earth as a whole. This can be seen in rising ocean temperatures which have been on an upward trajectory, reaching a record high last year at 0.075 degrees Celsius above the average. Although this value may sound benign at first, to put things into perspective, in the past 25 years, the amount of heat put into world oceans equates to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions (Cheng et al., 2020). In 2020, the upper layers of the global ocean are rapidly warming at a rate of 6 Hiroshima bombs of heat per second. This has led to catastrophic environmental outcomes, such as the deadly marine heatwaves causing the North-Pacific “blob”, and calamitous storms, seen recently off the coast of Jakarta in Indonesia (Rosane, 2020). 

In the age of the Anthropocene, achieving effective conservation has become a fast-moving target due to universal climate change and evolving marine policies, as marine ecosystems are being damaged at alarming rates by domestic and global stressors (Rilov et al., 2020). Marine protected areas (MPAs) and no-take reserves (NTRs) have been considered an integral component of marine conservation, however, recent appraisal has indicated that only 2% of global ocean is classified as highly protected (Claudet, 2018). The rest of these alleged “protected areas” continue to allow significant profit-driven activities that undermine the core principles of ecological conservation, acting as “paper parks” with little to no positive impact on marine ecosystems (Rilov et al., 2020). This senseless endorsement of new marine policies and its application, although seen as a source of employment and innovation in the short-term, could have hostile consequences and antagonistic aims which could potentially jeopardise marine conservation efforts in the long-term. 

One example of this is the recent push towards policies supporting Blue Growth, an initiative led by the United Nations in 2012. Blue Growth is defined as a long-term conservation strategy to support viable and sustainable growth in the marine and maritime industries, as a whole (Brolan et al., 2017). Although it has been established as one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, the concept of Blue Growth is novel and has no universally agreed-upon definition. This has led to an abundance of problems surrounding its interpretation and meaning (Voyer et al., 2018), shifting back and forth between a pure conservationist view and a pragmatic utilitarian perspective. In order to reap the benefits from the Blue Growth approach, adaptive management strategies – such as preserving ecosystem functions in climate change hotspots, while identifying and targeting climate refugia areas for protection (Rilov et al., 2020) – must be in place. 

Indeed, one success story illustrating the value of adaptive management strategies  can be found off the west coast of Scotland, in the secluded, quiet Isle of Arran. After 13 years of campaigning by its residents, Lamlash Bay was established in 2008 as Scotland’s first no-take reserve. Ever since protection rights have been enacted, biodiversity in the bay has increased substantially (Stewart et al., 2020). This has created a successful case study design that clearly attests to the benefits of conservation, in a field in which little evidence is available (Jeffcott & Ferreira, 2020). The model applied in Lamlash Bay has been used to endorse efforts for increased protection of British waters, to restore marine ecosystems and supplement their resilience in an unforeseeable future  (Clark & Humphreys, 2020). It is the view of many that layperson attempts to address such environmental crises are futile; however, the indisputable success of Arran’s conservation efforts has supported the development of strong protection for these MPAs, flatlining lobbyist attempts to weaken management  (Clark & Humphreys, 2020). The Isle of Arran has been internationally accredited for inspiring greater involvement of local communities around the UK, and the world, to take the fate of their marine waters into their own hands. 

Marine ecosystems are a vital part of the environment and are a major player in the fight against climate change and global warming. Marine conservation policies, such as MPAs and NTRS, aim to protect these vulnerable areas against man-made damage and endeavour to repair what damage has already been done. Lamlash Bay’s success in restoring its biodiversity is an example which proves that choices, however small, do have a real and lasting impact. 


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Brolan, C. E., Te, V., Floden, N., Hill, P. S. & Forman, L. (2017) Did the right to health get across the line? Examining the United Nations resolution on the Sustainable Development Goals. BMJ Global Health. 2 (3), e000353. Available from: Available from: doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2017-000353. 

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Jeffcott, C. & Ferreira, A. M. (2020) Characterising Futuring Strategies for Biodiverse Speculative Design and Systems Design. In: Karwowski, W., Ahram, T., Etinger, D., Tanković, N. & Taiar, R. (eds.) Human Systems Engineering and Design I. II, Cham, Springer International Publishing. pp.277-282.

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Rosane, O. (2020) 2019 was the oceans’ hottest year on record. Available from: [Accessed Oct 29, 2020].

Stewart, B. D., Howarth, L. M., Wood, H., Whiteside, K., Carney, W., Crimmins, É, O’Leary, B. C., Hawkins, J. P. & Roberts, C. M. (2020) Marine Conservation Begins at Home: How a Local Community and Protection of a Small Bay Sent Waves of Change Around the UK and Beyond. Frontiers in Marine Science. 7 76. Available from:

Voyer, M., Quirk, G., McIlgorm, A. & Azmi, K. (2018) Shades of blue: what do competing interpretations of the Blue Economy mean for oceans governance? Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning. 20 (5), 595-616. Available from: Available from: doi: 10.1080/1523908X.2018.1473153. [Accessed Oct 29, 2020]. 

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